Sunday, 16 December 2012

Inside Kovai: Podanur, a bustling railway town that has lost its way amid urbanization

The Podanur Railway Station

Of the many towns in India that owe its growth to establishment of a railway junction, the idyllic southern suburb of Podanur located about five kilometers away from here is probably among the oldest in the country.  While the Chennai Central (Madras Central Station) was built and inaugurated in 1871, the Podanur Railway Junction was established as early as 1862 and was a major hub of the Indian Railways then under the British.

Unlike many other railway junctions that went on to become major commercial and industrial hubs taking advantage of the rail connectivity, the Podanur junction spread across several acres today stands an apology for a railway junction as barely half a dozen trains halt here. As for the Railway Colony behind it, the prevailing condition is much worse.

The decades old railway hospital building at Podanur

“More than 62 pairs of trains pass through Podanur but only six of them halt here.  For several years in the past, all major trains passed through Podanur while Coimbatore Railway Station was just a halt for local passengers,” said a railway official at the Podanur junction. “If the trend continues, this junction might become a ghost station.”

Until a few decades ago, the railway station and the colony that lies beyond the station comprising of several blocks of staff quarters, the Signal and Telecommunications Workshop, the Railway Mixed School and a number of churches, was a bustling town with a culture of its own.

“Walking along the railway quarters here was a like traversing a locality in foreign country,” says Barbara Kumar, president of the Podanur Anglo Indian Association. “Country western music used to blare from every other home.  During the month of December, the aroma of baked cakes and homemade wines emanated from every home in the neighbourhood as Christmas celebrations began from December 1,” she says.

Back in the 50’s and 60s, Podanur had over 1000 Anglo Indian families most of whom worked in the Railways as locomotive pilots and guards. “While the men were employed in the Railways, the women worked as teachers. You could find a teacher in every home in the neighbourhood,” says Barbara.

Every morning, the Podanur Railway junction would be full of young boys and girls who commuted to Coimbatore through the two passenger trains, a meter gauge and a broad gauge passenger, to reach the Stanes School and other Anglo Indian schools. “We had no money at that time but life was so much fun,” she says.   

Over the years, most of the Anglo Indians moved out of Podanur seeking better pastures and the railway quarters that used to be a haven for aspiring musicians, hockey players and dancers is now mostly empty.  

Desmond Philip Dcruze (79), popularly known in the neighbourhood as 'Uncle Dick' is one of the last few old timers who have stuck it out in Podanur over the years. “Life has changed so much here and it’s no longer fun here.During my younger days, Podanur to us meant long hours hockey matches and late night balls. It was one long party,” he says.  

The Anglo Indian Association currently has around 300 registered members most of whom are not active participants in community events. "On an average, we used to host atleast five or six balls and many more late night parties  where young boys and girls would be dancing and partying through the night, sometimes until sunrise," says Barbara. "Today, with all the restrictions etc. we no longer host late night balls and the youngsters today do not have a communal feeling."

Dilapidated railway quarters buildings in Podanur

Develop Podanur for the sake of South Coimbatore residents, say locals

As we approach the Podanur Railway Junction from the Pollachi – Palakkad Road, the huge entrance that has been recently built welcomes passengers. Inside, the platforms and the parking lots are being re-laid with new tiles as renovation work is briskly underway.

“It will all be completed soon and the station will be ready to handle a large number of passengers,” says an official in charge of the construction works. “But, unless the railways department plan to halt more trains here, none of our efforts will be useful,” he says.

Pointing to a recent waylaying incident that took place recently, the official says that unless more passenger traffic is brought in, the station will become a haven for anti-socials. “Coimbatore junction is already so crowded and during peak hours there is a huge traffic jam outside the railway station. We have so much of land available for parking and other facilities. The department can decongest the traffic at Coimbatore junction by improving facilities at Coimbatore North and Podanur, which could be renamed as Coimbatore South as it caters to a large number of people in Pollachi, Ukkadam and other neighbourhoods in the South of the city,” he says.

Similar views are echoed by most residents in and around Podanur who feel that they have been given second class treatment. “While we welcome the move to halt more trains in Coimbatore, our only request is that Podanur should not get forgotten. By improving passenger traffic, the neighbourhood would prosper as hotels, private dormitories and other businesses would be established,” says Rajiv K, a railway staff working at Podanur.

While a handful of major business establishments and industries have been set up in Podanur, it still remains a predominantly railway town with most residents connected with the Southern Railway in one way or the other. “Our fear is that if more trains move away from Podanur, this town would lose its sheen and along with it a rich heritage,” says Rajiv whose parents and grandparents were also railway employees.


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  2. A few ghost towns get a second life, often due to heritage tourism generating a new economy able to support residents, owing to its accessibility and proximity to other attractive locations it has had a recent economic and holiday population surge.